Geoffrey Kirk reflects on the meaning of recent ecumenical events

Did he go or was he pushed?

The exchange of letters between Frank Griswold, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church of the United States, and Archbishop Rowan Williams, proffering and accepting Frank’s resignation as Chairman of International ARCIC, was eerily like similar letters to and from Downing Street marking the polite assassination of a political career.

There can be no doubt that Frank was pushed. Lambeth Palace had been receiving, for some time, letters demanding his resignation. Many already doubted his suitability for the job when it was revealed that he regularly donned a check shirt and jeans to receive Holy Communion at a Roman Catholic Church not far from his office at 815 Second Avenue. A man who casually pre-empts what remains formally to be agreed, they argued, is not a fit representative.

The fact that Frank signed the recent statement of the Primates of the Anglican Communion deploring the consecration of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire, and then acted, regardless, as the principal consecrator at that event, was merely the last straw. Not all the letters to Lambeth, be it noted, have been from over-heated Africans. At least one Church of England bishop was among the correspondents.

The Presiding Bishop’s resignation raises two important issues. The first is the future shape of Anglican–Roman Catholic relations. The second is the future of Affirming Catholicism, the movement within Anglicanism with which Bishop Griswold and Archbishop Williams are both closely related.

Ecumenical Endeavours

Thus far the Vatican (like the Phanar and the Oriental Orthodox Churches) has politely treated Anglicans as though their loose association of provinces were a world-wide church with a central authority which could be trusted to deliver on agreements reached. Both sides in these bilateral talks went along with this gracious fiction – though both must have known that it was far from the truth. The resignation of the Co-Chairman of one of these dialogues, for the very reason that he has failed to abide by the corporate decision of the College of Primates of which he is a member, makes it impossible to sustain that fiction any longer.

The Oriental Orthodox Churches in their recent statement (astutely timed to coincide with Archbishop Rowan’s recent visit to Constantinople) have recognized this fact. They have suspended talks until such time as the Anglicans have set their house in order.

‘It was felt by the Heads of the Oriental Churches who met in Antelias that the on-going dialogue between the Anglicans and the family of Oriental Churches would be better served by waiting, at present, for the Anglican Communion to have time to take proper account of, and reflect upon, the consecration which has taken place. It is very much hoped by all participants that the work of the Commission will be resumed at a time convenient to all.’

Rome must now surely follow suit. Or take an even more radical step, and begin negotiations with parts of the Anglican Communion, in the sure and certain knowledge that there is no consistency of doctrine or agreement which can be expected of the whole.

For Rome this would be a risky course – for who could guarantee the unity and doctrinal coherence of individual provinces (however strong they might for the moment seem) or of groups of dissentient Anglicans within revisionist provinces (like the American Anglican Council, to whom Cardinal Ratzinger recently sent unprecedented greetings)? For Anglicans, however, it would accord with familiar practice – for Anglican provinces have always conducted, even within the British Isles, local ecumenical negotiations with Protestant groups quite independently of their Anglican neighbours. The degree of consultation has been negligible and at times non-existent.

In the ebb and flow of contemporary Anglican ecclesiology, perhaps the greatest gift that Rome could offer to Anglican traditionalists would be ecumenical hope in domestic turmoil. Anglicans are learning – some of them at least – that to scripture, tradition, and reason (the ‘three-legged stool’ of Anglican polity) there needs to be added the cogency of a magisterium. And there is only one magisterium up for grabs.

Domestic Arrangements

The Griswold resignation, meanwhile, has implications also, within Anglicanism, for the movement which calls itself Affirming Catholicism.

Guyed by wags, at the time of its foundation, as dedicated to the dual programme of ‘girls in the sanctuary and boys in the bed’, it has come dangerously close to its caricature. And both aspects of that undoubted programme have increasingly compromised its claim to ‘catholicism’. They have fractured the unity of world-wide Anglicanism and deepened divisions with the great Churches of East and West.

The strong suit of Affirming Catholics was that the Anglican Communion could be, à la Peter Hebblethwaite, a sort of experimental laboratory for women in orders. (‘Pray cross the bridge first, gentlemen! We will follow when we see it can carry your weight.’) But, as the exegetical and ecclesiological principles which permitted the ordination of women as priests and bishops have been expanded to permit divorced gay bishops and same sex unions, the wisdom of the Holy Father’s declaration that the Catholic Church has no authority to proceed with the ordination of women has become increasingly apparent.

The founding fathers of Affirming Catholicism were once a powerful group. One was already Primate of his Church, two others were soon to become such. One of those is now Archbishop of Canterbury. Jeffrey John is an influential theologian. But the fall-out has been as precipitous as the rise.

Richard Holloway, whose admissions of near atheism have rendered him an embarrassment, is now off the scene. Frank Griswold’s consecration of Gene Robinson has robbed him of what is surely the zenith of Affirming Catholic influence – the Co-chairmanship of ARCIC. Rowan Williams, compelled to demand the withdrawal of his friend Dr John’s candidature for a suffragan bishopric, was forced into a declaration which comes very close to scuppering the whole Affirming Catholicism project.

‘There is an obvious problem’, he told the press, ‘in the consecration of a bishop whose ministry will not be readily received by a significant proportion of Christians in England and elsewhere.’

The Archbishop, lauded by all as a man of almost angelic intelligence, must surely have seen that if his argument precluded the consecration of Dr John, it equally precluded the ordination of women as bishops. He must also see that the project which he gaily embraced as a mere Regius Professor may well be set to blight an entire archiepiscopate.

With Frank Griswold’s resignation as co-chairman of ARCIC, the Affirming Catholic agenda – ‘girls in the sanctuary and boys in the bed’ – has surely achieved closure. It has been wrecked on the rock of Peter. Anglican Affirming Catholics, like some in the Roman Church itself, put their faith in the infallibility of the next-pope-but-one (who naturally would have the good sense to agree with them). But when the Holy Father speaks in accord with the Ecumenical Patriarch, the Moscow Patriarchate, and the Oriental Orthodox Churches, what ‘catholicism’ is there left to be ‘affirmed’?

Geoffrey Kirk is Parish Priest of SS Stephen and Mark, Lewisham and National Secretary of Forward in Faith